A draft of Hancock County’s updated comprehensive plan is complete. Submitted image
A draft of Hancock County’s updated comprehensive plan is complete. Submitted image

HANCOCK COUNTY – Officials continue to consider a proposed updated plan for helping them guide the county’s future after hearing from the public on the subject.

The Hancock County draft 2022 comprehensive plan outlines goals and aspirations for how the county will develop as far as aspects like housing, land use, transportation, recreation and infrastructure. Leaders would use it when making decisions regarding development and growth.

It would succeed the county’s current comprehensive plan, which officials adopted in 2005 before conducting an in-house update in 2012. The proposed replacement is designed to last the next 20 years before its next overhaul, but with regular revisits recommended over the decades. Called Future Hancock, the effort is about 18 months in the making, has been led by a consulting firm and steering committee of county stakeholders, and has involved public feedback, workshops and open houses.

The Hancock County Area Plan Commission continued consideration of a recommendation on the new plan to a meeting later this month. Members’ decision followed two public hearings on the topic, during which residents expressed hesitation toward the draft and suggested further changes.

At nearly 200 pages, the proposed update is split into chapters addressing conservation, agriculture and natural resources; housing; land use and growth management; an economic development strategy; a thoroughfare plan; community livability; intergovernmental cooperation; and implementing the plan.

Hancock County hired Vandewalle & Associates, a consulting firm with offices in Wisconsin and Ohio, for $250,000 last year to help with the update. Scott Harrington, principal of the firm, gave a presentation on the draft after an open house and before a public hearing last month. A component that often draws the most attention in any comprehensive plan, he noted, is the future land use map – covered in different colors representing various recommended land uses meant to guide officials’ deliberations as development proposals come forward.

Harrington said the north-central part of the county has the greatest potential for growth and change from current conditions, mainly due to a push for an I-70 interchange at CR 200W, which would draw development.

One outcome of the comprehensive plan’s update process was to not make North CR 200W a future arterial road capable of handling more traffic due to Mohawk and Mt. Vernon Community School Corporation’s campus to the north, however. Instead, the thoroughfare plan suggests shifting that northward artery to CR 300W.

“Everything west of that would be a little more intensive,” Harrington said. “It’s closer to the (Indianapolis Regional) Airport, it’s closer to existing more-intense development. And then as you would cross 300 (to the east) that would start to scale down more into neighborhoods.”

He added one remaining issue would be how to ensure the proposed artery doesn’t adversely affect Tuttle Orchards, which is off CR 300W north of I-70.

Harrington said a significant change in the draft from the county’s current plan is the inclusion of planned neighborhoods, which are recommended throughout the future land use map. Such developments offer a wide variety of housing types, he said, allowing residents to move up or down in the same neighborhood as their living situations change and preserve a sense of community. The communities are also more cost-effective for serving with infrastructure, Harrington continued, adding they allow developers to avoid risks associated with fluctuations in the housing market favoring one product over another.

If adopted, the plan should be used with a sense of flexibility, Harrington emphasized. As developers pitch projects, it’s important to not just see if it matches a color on the map, he said, but whether it also aligns with goals, policies and strategies outlined in the comprehensive plan.

“Because this is painted with a pretty broad brush, and there absolutely could be things where the line is not exactly where we showed it, and that’s OK, it doesn’t mean that you’re inconsistent,” Harrington told officials. “But the important thing is that you have that discussion, that the plan have an active role as you’re evaluating development proposals.”

Over a dozen people spoke at a public hearing on the proposed comprehensive plan update, expressing concerns over the continuing surge of warehouse developments in the western part of the county, a desire for development decisions to pause until the new plan is completed and for more attention to be paid to comments that have been made on the draft.

Speakers also voiced opposition toward single-family rental homes, which aren’t overtly addressed in the plan but proposals for them have been coming before planning authorities throughout the county lately. Officials haven’t necessarily welcomed them either, but recognize their inability to prevent property owners from renting out residences.

More of a focus on housing consisting of larger homes on larger lots also came out of the comments.

“I really don’t think the housing goal in this plan is the vision that the people of Hancock County want,” Sandra Hudson said. “This compact development theory is just a deterioration of our quality of life. We want big lots, we want to see green space, we love seeing those fields.”

Hart Summeier, a real estate professional in the county, said he’d like to see the plan address what he called a housing gap for older residents.

“We do not have very many low- or no-maintenance communities,” he said.

The next step for the plan is for the county plan commission to vote on a recommendation to the Hancock County Commissioners, which will then vote whether to adopt the document. At a plan commission meeting earlier this week, outgoing county planning director Mike Dale noted Vandewalle & Associates prepared revisions following the previous week’s public hearing. Plan commission members voted to continue their recommendation to their next meeting, which is at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 25 at the Hancock County Courthouse Annex, 111 American Legion Place.

At the first public hearing, plan commission president Michael Long said he’s looking forward to the formation of a regional leadership group outlined in the plan, which would aim to expand the county’s capacity and profile in responding to regional opportunities and collaboration. He expects it would lead to similar results he admired about the comprehensive plan’s steering committee, which he said included members adjusting their viewpoints based on what their counterparts were thinking.

“The regional leadership group I think is something that’s going to be very important to this continued tweaking of it as we go forward,” Long said.

Bill Spalding, a plan commission member and county commissioner, said he thinks the plan strikes a balance between the county’s agricultural past and all of the development that’s part of its present and future.

“I was very pleased with the fact that even though I see growth on the west side of the county, that we can still maintain our ag heritage here in the county, and that means a lot to folks, so I was definitely glad to see that,” he said.

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